State Senate Oks Bill to Curb Clergy Sex Abuse
But Plan Would Make Clerics Report Only on Peers, Not on Other People

By Tom Heinen and Steven Walters
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Madison WI]
March 4, 2004

Madison - After nearly two years of effort, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday to curb sexual abuse of children by clergy but defeated an amendment that would have given victims one year to file civil suits against churches no matter how long ago offenses occurred.

Partly because of constitutionality questions, that amendment had not been expected to pass.

But a victims group and some legislators found the approval of the bill bittersweet for another reason. Although it would, for the first time, add clergy to the list of professionals required to report suspected sexual abuse of children, that requirement was modified.

The bill still would require clergy to report to civil authorities any fellow clergy they suspect of abusing a child, but it no longer requires them to report cases in which they suspect that a child they have seen in the course of their professional duties is being abused by anyone.

The bill still contains an exception so that communications made to clergy in private or in a confessional setting would fall outside the reporting requirement.

Before the unanimous Senate vote for the bill, which forwarded it to the Assembly, Democrats pleaded for it to not be weakened. Democrats said victims of those crimes need to be helped in any way they can and by any professional they ask for help.

"If there is a hell on earth, it's what these (victims) are going through today," said Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), who recalled an emotional church service in Milwaukee where someone who had been abused by a clergy member sobbed and cried as he struggled to recall the attacks.

Sen. Judy Robson (D-Beloit) said victims often confide in clergy members, turning to them with questions or for counsel.

"If that person does nothing, the child is continuing to be abused," Robson, who is a nurse, said of clergy members. "They have been devastated by a second person, and abused again."

Robson said protecting just one child from being abused again would be "the most important thing we can do" in the two-year session of the Legislature.

On an 18-15 vote, the Senate listened to Republicans who insisted that clergy members should have to report only suspected sex abuse by their peers.

That change would be a "very big step for Wisconsin, and very important," said Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who called her work on the issue one of the most emotionally draining events in her 14 years in the Legislature. She said it took years to assemble the coalition of church groups that now support the bill.

Republican Sen. Dave Zien of Eau Claire read what he said were letters from clergy members, whom he did not name, who said requiring them to report any suspected sex abuse they encounter would violate their sacred vows.

One La Crosse Baptist pastor said requiring him to report any suspected child abuse would make him an "agent of the state," Zien said.

Zien said another clergy member from Rice Lake wrote that making him report any suspected child abuse would cost him "any opportunity" to help that victim, so he would be professionally obligated to disobey that law.

"I'm extremely disappointed that the Senate passed it without requiring clergy to report all suspected child abuse to law enforcement," said Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee), who authored the bill with Darling.

Krusick, who expects the Assembly to take up the bill next week, said she hoped the requirement could be restored there.

How strong is the bill now?

"Despite the move to weaken the mandatory reporting, which I considered the cornerstone of the bill, I'm very pleased that the Senate left intact the provision that gives victims of serious child sexual abuse crimes until age 45 to press criminal charges, instead of age 31, and until age 35 to file civil actions, instead of age 20," Krusick said. "And also, the provision that clarifies that a church can be sued for failing to report child sexual abuse and for not preventing future abuse."

Mary Guentner, a Wisconsin spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said she found the change in the reporting requirement "both disturbing and puzzling."

"Along with being puzzling, it makes me angry both personally and professionally," added Guentner, who works as a certified social worker in Milwaukee County. "No other profession has that kind of exclusion, and what it really translates into is not having to report any abuse, because then they (clergy) can use confidentiality and the seal of confession and not have to report anything."

"It's hard for me to understand if a clergy person walks in on a teacher who is not clergy abusing a kid, that that doesn't need to be reported."

To become law, the Assembly must pass the bill next week. The regular session of the Legislature is scheduled to end Thursday.


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